Ringer App Creates Buzz For Forest Heights STEM Team

Ringer App Creates Buzz For Forest Heights STEM Team
Anu Iyer, leader of the Verizon App Challenge team from Forest Heights STEM Academy in Little Rock, and her teacher, Amber Harben. (Sarah Campbell)

A team of five sixth-graders from Forest Heights STEM Academy in Little Rock have theorized a new smartphone app called SmartRnger and won not only a Best in the State accolade but also $5,000 for their school.

Each student received a tablet too.

They competed against more than 18,000 teams throughout the nation in the fifth annual Verizon Innovative Learning App Challenge. Verizon Innovative Learning is the Verizon Foundation’s education initiative.

Now the team is hoping to clinch a second victory that would mean another $15,000 for their school, but they need people to vote for them by Feb. 14 by texting “SmartRnger” to 22333 to win.

The app the students envisioned automatically adjusts the volume of a telephone ringtone based on ambient noise and location preferences. For the contest, they had to submit an essay about the app and create a video of three minutes or less to advertise it.

The team had to make another 30-second commercial to compete for Fan Favorite.

“We are facing this problem in everyday life,” said student and team leader Anu Iyer. “So, let’s pretend you’re going to a doctor’s appointment. As soon as you walk in, you might forget to lower your ringer volume, and it might go off and you might get embarrassed during your appointment. If SmartRnger becomes a reality, you won’t have to face that problem at all.”

The team, including Deanna Kamanga, Charlotte Boehme, Aiden Jones and Dimitri Kitrell, could also be selected by a panel of education and industry experts as one of eight Best in the Nation winners. The prize amount is the same, and either title means the students will get the opportunity to work with experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab to turn SmartRnger into a reality.

Fan Favorite and Best in the Nation winners will also win a trip to Orlando, Florida, to present their completed apps at the annual Technology Student Association conference in June.

Also in the running for the awards is the other Best in the State winner from Arkansas, Manila High School’s team. That team proposed an app called MHS Counseling that allows students to describe their problem and send it directly to their school counselor, according to the contest’s website. Based on the urgency of the issue, the app sends a text message or an email.

Even if the team doesn’t win, Forest Heights plans to develop the app and sell it to the Google Play Store for Android users and the App Store for iPhone users, according to the team’s coach, Amber Harben, who teaches computer science to the school’s seventh-graders.

Harben gives all the credit to the students, noting that they digitally created the videos instead of filming them. Iyer said that was the most difficult part of the project, and the team used animation software called PowToon to get it done.

She said the team spent five or six weeks after school and during lunch working on the project, and probably 24 hours were spent on the videos. Their method? Trial and error, Iyer said.

But this kind of thing isn’t new to those enrolled at the K-8 school. Harben said it has had a STEM-focused curriculum for three years.

Forest Heights also has industry partners, including Nabholz Construction of Conway, which sponsors a builders’ club, and Northrop Grumman of Falls Church, Virginia, which has an office in Little Rock. Students have job-shadowed Northrop’s local employees, Harben said.

Another of its partners is Knowledge Tree of Little Rock, which sponsors a Lego club at Forest Heights. The club for K-5 students focuses on building with Lego-brand toys, consisting mostly of interlocking plastic bricks, learning how those function and being creative with them.

“We hope they leave here with a vast knowledge of ‘Hey, I may still want to be a doctor, but now I have all these different areas that I didn’t know were career possibilities,’” Harben said of her students.